Swan Valley may not seem like an obvious choice for a new encounter with Manitoba. It’s north of Manitoba, but not the North of Manitoba. More southwesterly if you’re trying to be really specific, it’s about a five-hour-plus drive away from Winnipeg – “…if you’re doing it right”, according to my friend, a born-and-bred Valley girl – and a mere stone’s throw from the Saskatchewan border. The thing about places like Swan Valley that you would rarely give a second thought to though, is that they have an uncanny way of drawing you in and wowing you in ways you wouldn’t really expect. Here are a few reasons why you should consider Swan Valley for your next Manitoba adventure.
With a population of just over 4,000, Swan River is a true small town with larger-than-life character. Like any other small town that you venture into within Manitoba, there’s this sense of pride among its residents that’s almost contagious and Swan River is no different. The town’s agricultural roots still drives its economy and nowhere is this more evident than during the annual Northwest Round Up and Exhibition, where the cowboys are outfitted to the hilt and the rodeo is as essential as air. This small-town celebration is a big deal and not to mention a big draw. People come out by the numbers to take advantage of the free pancake breakfast at the local Formo Ford dealership, which sets the pace for the day’s activities. Not only do the residents of the Valley descend on the town, but visitors from neighbouring towns over the border also make their way to the festival. The Chamber of Commerce Parade follows breakfast with an impressive lineup of hot rods, horse-drawn rides, ginormous tractors and kids of all ages running to and fro in the streets collecting so much candy that you’d swear it was Halloween in July.
The town attractions
Where do I start? Simply put, there is just so much to do in and around the town. Already, there are over 100 trails that take you into nature for those big gulps of fresh air that fill the lungs, soothe the senses, and don’t quite compare to anything that city life has to offer. Like Selkirk, known for its heritage homes and historical buildings, Swan River has several such classic relics, which have been preserved and offer a tiny glimpse into the Valley’s history. Of course, to understand any region’s present day, venturing into its past is always a good place to start and a true-to-life historical experience awaits anyone with just the right amount curiosity at the Swan Valley Historical Museum and Heritage Village. Picture Lower Fort Garry where time stands still and pioneer life is depicted through artefacts and archives, but in this case, it’s on a smaller – but equally fascinating – scale. Behind the museum’s grounds is the Rex Leach Museum Trail that is as peaceful as it is green with varieties of ferns that litter either side. During the winter months, the trail transforms into a snowmobiler’s paradise, bringing in visitors from beyond the borders. Another point of pride among Valley residents is its golf course. This is as far north as you will find an 18-hole course in Manitoba and just about every local you ask will tell you exactly that.
This is one place you will have to see to believe. In the meantime, just take my word for it: it’s pretty darn cool! Just a few kilometres west of the Highway 487 at the turnoff to the Thunderhill Ski Area, there’s a portion of road, where, if you stop your vehicle, throw it into neutral and take your foot off the brakes, it will automatically be pulled back uphill. No one quite seems to have an explanation for how or why this happens. There are no obvious “magnets” that would deconstruct this phenomenon, but what’s certain is that the experience is as fun as it is fascinating and I guarantee you that you will find yourself doing it over and over and over and over again with the wonder of a wide-eyed child with a shiny new toy. Of course, if you manage to get over that childlike fascination and carry on, the views from Thunderhill of the valley below covered in the brilliant yellows and greens of canola are a stunning sight. Thunderhill is also another area that transforms during the winter months into a downhill ski trail with lifts to take you back to the top. There are also bike trails for the less faint of heart in search of that adrenaline rush.
Drive your vehicle past the “Stop Here” sign and stop just before the incline. That’s the sweet spot to where the magic happens.
Views from your cabin...
Located just under an hour away from Swan River, Wellman Lake is nestled within Duck Mountain Provincial Park. Paved roads give way to gravel roads, disconnecting you from the modern-day comforts to which city life makes us so accustomed. Here, there is no Internet or cellphone service. This is where you go when you truly want to escape from it all. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually it becomes the new normal. Wellman Lake Lodge offers cabin rentals that sit right on the lake, each with its own private dock. Wellman Campground, run by Manitoba Parks, borders another beautiful lake (Glad Lake). During the summer months, families trickle in and dot the sandy shores taking respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Lakes and fishing
A trip to Swan Valley might make you think that half of Manitoba’s 100,000 lakes are located right in the Valley. There’s no telling just how many there are, but suffice it to say that there are quite a few. The fishing here is a big draw and an even bigger boast among the locals. The varieties range from rainbow to brook trout, bass to perch and northern species like pike. If you’re an avid angler, Swan Valley should be your next destination. Ask any of the residents where the best fishing in the area is and Whitefish Lake is one of the first name drops. Drive past the grounds of Wellman Lake Lodge (where the fishing also happens to be phenomenal), lakes like Black Beaver, Two Mile, and Spray are a hub and now, the not-so-secret spots that the locals like to frequent.
If you go…
There are several other places in Swan Valley that I only wish I had more time to visit. Should you have the fortune to visit one day and should time be on your side, the Porcupine Mountain Provincial Forest and North Steeprock Lake are highly recommended.
Be sure to stop in at the Swan Valley Information Centre where the staff will make every effort to ensure you have an authentic experience while there.
A drive about a mile out of Swan River will lead you to star-filled skies and depending on the night, there’s even a chance to “Spot the Station”. The website offers a list of upcoming sightings of NASA’s space station right over Swan Valley and another 7,000-plus locations worldwide.